One of the reasons I switched from reading science fiction to mysteries in my teens was that crime fiction allowed me to visit real places I might not otherwise get to see.
For instance, Jonathan Valin’s private eye Harry Stoner books (The Lime Pit) showed me a Cincinnati I never visited, even as a devout baseball fan. Robert Irvine, who in the 1980s and ’90s wrote a great series featuring Moroni Traveler, a Mormon detective in Salt Lake City, was another excellent guide. So was Miriam Grace Monfredo, as she sent her librarian heroine, Glynis Tryon, out from Seneca Falls, New York, on Civil War-era adventures--one involving abolitionist John Brown. And Dianne Day’s lovely books about intrepid typist Fremont Jones, who became an early female (and feminist) sleuth in San Francisco right after the 1906 earthquake, whetted my appetite for Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell historical thrillers, as well as the wonderful series about a midwife in post-Revolutionary War Maine written by Margaret Lawrence, who more recently delivered Roanoke.
But Providence, the capital city of little Rhode Island, was never really a part of my crime education. The closest I came were a couple of Mark Arsenault’s books (Gravewriter), in which journalist Billy Povich left his pitiful post with a Providence broadsheet to solve crimes and unearth corruption for another paper in Charlestown, to the south.
More recently, though, I stumbled (albeit late) onto a debut gem called Rogue Island, which was published last October by Forge. All of the usual suspects--and some surprisingly unusual ones--were buzzing madly about this book in ads and jacket blurbs. “A tense, terrific thriller and a remarkably assured debut from Bruce DeSilva, an author to watch,” said Dennis Lehane. “Rogue Island is a stunning debut in the noir tradition,” gushed Harlan Coben. And Michael Connelly, arguably the best modern writer of mysteries involving newspaper reporters, added this cherry: “Writing with genuine authority, a dose of cynical humor, and a squinting eye on the world, Bruce DeSilva delivers a newspaper story that ranks with the best of them.”
Rogue Island lives up to those plaudits, and even exceeds them. Its protagonist is L.S.T. Mulligan (only a few childhood friends know that his first name is Liam), a studly, just-turned-40 reporter and troublemaker working for the only newspaper in town, The Providence Journal. Born and reared in Providence’s Mount Hope neighborhood, he’s an old-school newsy with a clever patter and curious romantic draw. When one of the several women who’ve fallen for him asks Mulligan how his tiny, Mob-infected state got its name, he tells her, “Rhode Island is a bastardization of Rogue Island, a name the sturdy farmers of colonial Massachusetts bestowed upon the swarm of heretics, smugglers, and cutthroats who first settled the shores of Narragansett Bay.” Who knew?
In this fast-moving introductory tale (nominated recently for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel), we find Mulligan investigating a series of arsons that are destroying his old neighborhood and killing his lifelong friends. It becomes harder and harder for the reporter to take a dispassionate view of events. “While I waited, I looked over at what was left of 188 Doyle Avenue, where I’d played cops and robbers with the Jenkins twins when I was a kid,” Mulligan tells us at the scene of a particularly sad and nasty blaze. “Now half the roof was gone ... I stared at the unblinking third-story window on the southeast corner where old Mr. McCready, the teacher who’d first introduced me to Ray Bradbury and John Steinbeck, had been strangled by the smoke. The arsonist was reducing my childhood to ashes.”
Before he’s able to put this horrific story to bed, Mulligan will receive a bruising, weather threats from the Mob, be arrested, and face disciplinary action by his newspaper employer. In his pursuit of justice, he’ll ultimately win help from some unlikely sources.
Mulligan, a reformed drunk with an ulcer, drips ink from his veins the way all lifelong newspaper people do. He muses at one point: “Seems like I’m always hustling for something--a lead, a quote, a free parking space, space above the fold ...” And he has obviously been at a lot of fire scenes, which he describes with frightening perfection: “A sheet of flame climbed the front of the duplex. Black smoke boiled from cheap asphalt siding, mixing with gray smoke that curled from the eaves ...”
I could go on for page after page, quoting from Rogue Island. Then I’d probably spend almost equal time extolling author DeSilva’s skill at creating memorable characters with a tap on his keyboard. One of those fictional players is a young reporter (the son of the Journal’s owner), who chooses Mulligan to be his mentor. The older man responds by calling his new protégé Thanks, Dad.
Oddly enough, DeSilva appears to be harboring a grudge against a criminal defense attorney named Brady Coyle, who he casts as the prime villain in this entertaining yarn. Those of us who remember with affection the late William G. Tapply’s Boston-based series about a lawyer and fisherman named Brady Coyne can only laugh and shake our heads. Surely there’s an inside joke here, that DeSilva may let us in on one day.
READ MORE: “The Fascinating, Edgar-nominated Bruce DeSilva,” by Toni McGee Causey (Murderati).